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The Democrats Have Learned to Say, 'Black Lives Matter.' Now What?

Why Democrats can't get complacent about police brutality.

Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Ferguson Effect hypothesis makes three claims about reality, none of which have been objectively verifiedFirst, it holds that crime is rising significantly nationwide. Second, that police officers in general have altered their behavior as a result of renewed scrutiny of racialized police violence. Finally, that the second phenomenon is a direct cause of the first. 

These specious notions had been floating around well before Chris Chistie introduced them into the third Republican presidential debate. With no prompting from the moderators, Christie went so far as to suggest that “police officers are afraid to get out of their cars,” an assertion that would seem to say more about the intestinal fortitude of America’s police officers than the malicious forces conspiring against them. Days earlier, FBI Director James Comey had also shared his “strong sense that some part of the explanation” for the imaginary crime wave sweeping across the country is “a chill wind that has blown through law enforcement.” 

Since then, Comey has been backed up by the new head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Chuck Rosenberg. “I think there’s something to” the Ferguson Effect, said Rosenberg. “Rightly or wrongly, you become the next viral video. ... Now you can do everything right and still end up on the evening news.” The Obama administration, to its credit, has publicly pushed back on these comments, which hasn’t stopped both Comey and Rosenberg from doubling down on them. Christie, for his part, thinks he can ride his tired Nixon impersonation straight out of the Republican kiddy table debate. Last week, he told an Iowa audience, “I want the Black Lives Matter people to understand: Don’t call me for a meeting. You’re not getting one.”

This all set the stage Saturday for the opening question to the racial justice segment of the second Democratic debate. Citing both Comey and Rosenberg’s apparent preoccupation with the camera-shyness of law enforcement, CBS moderator John Dickerson asked Martin O’Malley where he stands on the Ferguson Effect and what he would do if “two top members of your administration were floating that idea?”

In his answer, O’Malley talked up the positive aspects of his still-problematic record as governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. “We restored voting rights to 52,000 people,” he said. “We decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. I repealed the death penalty. And we also put in place a civilian review board.” As Samuel Singyangwe of the Campaign Zero criminal justice reform group pointed out, that last accomplishment is not nearly as stellar as O’Malley seems to think it is. But the others do indeed constitute meaningful, if limited, steps toward a more equitable legal system. 

The same could be said for the measures mentioned by Bernie Sanders, who called for “major reform in a broken criminal justice system—from top to bottom.” Sanders reaffirmed his support for the repeal of minimum sentencing laws and the removal of marijuana from federal anti-narcotics statutes. When police officers “kill someone who is unarmed who should not be killed,” he said, “they must be held accountable.”

Clinton’s answer was less substantive, and therefore more representative of where the Democratic discourse around racial justice now stands. Rather than lay out any specific steps she would take to address institutional racism, Clinton recounted a series of emotional meetings she’s had with the relatives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other victims of police violence. 

This, in a way, still represents noteworthy progress for a party that was, until recently, almost completely beholden to the tough-on-crime politics of black criminality. It’s also a slight improvement on the previous Democratic debate, in which black lives mattered for exactly one question. But acknowledging the need for reform is not the same thing as actively working against the opposition lining up against it. And the Democrats still haven’t demonstrated that they appreciate the need for the latter. 

O’Malley was uniquely positioned to dismantle the myth that racial justice is antithetical to public safety. Six police officers from his former city are currently on trial for the ruled-homicide of Freddie Gray, and the protests sparked by Gray’s death are precisely the kind of kindle that feed white backlash to black social movements in general. But instead of offering a factual rebuttal of the Ferguson Effect, O’Malley dodged the original question altogether. 

That neither of the other, higher-polling candidates felt compelled to denounce the Ferguson Effect is indicative of the complacency beginning to settle over the Democratic field on issues of racial justice. As president, Barack Obama’s ability to speak on those issues is arguably restricted, but as candidates to replace Obama, the Democrats can and should take it upon themselves to move the conversation in a more constructive direction. At the urging of #BlackLivesMatter activists, they’ve started to put forward policy solutions. Now it’s time to fight the political battles necessary to defend them. 

O’Malley finished his answer with an emphatic affirmation that “black lives matter,” which proves, at least, that he has the classical conditioning capacity of your average parakeet. If he and the other Democrats have internalized the urgency of the fight that lies ahead, they’ll stop waiting on protesters to clear those roadblocks for them.